A Jewish Response to
“The Real Kosher Jesus” by Dr. Michael L Brown
When Rabbi Shmuli Boteach published a book entitled “Kosher Jesus” a storm erupted. Jews criticized the book for its misrepresentation of the Jewish conception of “Kosher.” The scholars of conventional wisdom complained that Rabbi Boteach’s book misrepresented the study of history. And Christians were offended by Rabbi Boteach’s misrepresentation of Christianity’s Jesus.
Dr. Michael Brown, a prominent Christian evangelist, took up his pen in defense of his faith. As a response to Rabbi Boteach’s book, Dr. Brown authored a 200 page book named: “The Real Kosher Jesus.” In this book Dr. Brown describes what he believes is the “real” Jesus, and he puts forth various arguments why his “real” Jesus should be considered “kosher” (i.e. acceptable to the Jewish people).
This is not a new activity for Dr. Brown. Dr. Brown has already authored a five volume series; “Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus” (henceforth “AJO”) in which he lays out his arguments for Christianity. I have responded to this 1500 page document in my articles; “Contra Brown,” “The Elephant and the Suit,” and in “Supplement to Contra Brown.”
Upon reading “The Real Kosher Jesus” (henceforth “RKJ”) I realized that my work is not done. Although it would be difficult to identify a particular argument that is new to RKJ and that is not found in AJO, yet still and all, the popular style of RKJ and its distinctive approach to the matter has introduced something new to the debate. Furthermore, in RKJ, Dr. Brown expands on some arguments that he only touched upon in AJO.
As a Jew, I cannot stand idly by when my brethren are being led astray. As a member of God’s witness nation I cannot remain passive when any human being is being taught to direct devotion toward an idol. And when this idolatry is being promoted in the name of Judaism, I will not remain silent.
The thrust of Dr. Brown’s book is the exaltation of Jesus. Dr. Brown attempts to demonstrate that Jesus was a great rabbi, a prophet like no other, the Jewish Messiah and an incarnation of God. RKJ focuses on the personality of Jesus and puts forth the argument that the man deserves the exaltation that the Church demands for him. And Dr. Brown speaks of Jesus as the solution to the world’s problems, the precious wisdom that has been hidden in plain sight.
My aim in the following chapters is to set forth the testimony of the witness that God appointed; the testimony of the Jewish nation. This witness has been maligned by many people, but perhaps the most far-reaching slander of God’s appointed witness are the words attributed to Jesus. The gospel’s negative description of Judaism still shapes the world’s view of the people who God charged with the mission of testifying to His truth (Isaiah 43:10). But as we move closer to the messianic age, more and more people are seeing beyond the petty slander of the Church and seeking true testimony from God. It is my prayer that these humble words will aid the truth-seeker in his or her quest.
Idolatry is a sharp word. We tend to think of idolatry in terms of the cruel and immoral child-sacrifices that the ancients offered to their crude statues. Dr. Brown views Christianity as the heroic champion that opposes idolatry and advocates a monotheistic faith. And much of western civilization would concur with Dr. Brown’s assessment. Most people cannot see a connection between the high philosophy of Trinitarian Christianity and the boorish beliefs of the ancient pagans.
The Jewish people beg to differ. For centuries upon dark centuries, Jewish people have chosen to die rather than direct devotion to Jesus. It is not because Jews love death. There is no culture that respects human life as does the culture of the Jew. But the Jew stands in a covenantal relationship with the Creator of heaven and earth. And the obeisance that the Church was demanding for Jesus is seen by the Jew as the deepest violation of that covenant. Not because we hate Jesus, but because we love God. The devotion of our hearts belongs to God and to no one else.
The rejection of idolatry is not a peripheral aspect of Judaism. The condemnation of idolatry is not a marginal matter according to the authors of the Jewish Scriptures. The central task of the Jew is to testify to the world that there is but One God (Isaiah 43:10) and the Jewish prophets taught that the climax of history will be reached when all idolatry is eradicated from the minds of men and God alone is exalted (Isaiah 2:17,18).
But why are the Jewish people so convinced that the Christian devotion to Jesus is idolatry?
We need to define idolatry before we can answer that question, but before we define idolatry we need to define something else. Just as we cannot understand the sin of adultery before we understand the concept of marriage so it is with idolatry. We need to understand the covenant relationship that we share with God before we can define the violation of that relationship.
The Jewish people have a certain perception of God. This perception defines God as the Creator of every facet of existence and who is above and beyond all finite existence. Not only does the Jewish perception identify God, but it also identifies every other aspect of existence. The Jewish perception of God has the Jew see God as the Creator of all and it has the Jew see all existence as beholden to God.
The miracles of the exodus gave the Jewish people the understanding that all of finite existence belongs exclusively to God. And at Sinai, the Jewish people experienced a collective prophetic encounter with God. At that time they pledged their hearts to Him. They committed themselves to worship the God who owns their worship to begin with and Him alone.
The impact of the Sinai encounter is preserved through the living testimony of the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 4:9). Every Jew is born into a nation that already stands in a covenant relationship with the One Creator of heaven and earth. Every individual Jew is enjoined to recognize that relationship and to build his or her life on the basis of that relationship. The covenantal responsibility of each Jew is that every breath of life be suffused with awe and with love toward the One who provided that breath. And the covenantal responsibility of our nation would have us pass on to our children the same covenant that we received from our parents.
The devotion that the Jew carries in his heart toward God is intimately bound up with the sense of justice that dictates that we do not give to one that which belongs to another. The Jewish devotion to God consists of the acknowledgement and the acceptance that our devotion is not ours to give away; it belongs to the One who is holding our existence in His loving hand.
Now that we’ve spoken a bit about the relationship between God and His firstborn son let us talk about the violation of that relationship.
The idolater is overawed by the qualities that his object of worship seems to possess. Be it the awesome power of thunder, the sublime majesty of a mountain, the exquisite beauty of a river or the life giving warmth of the sun. The idolater sees these qualities and he recognizes his own smallness in that he possesses none of them. The idolater concludes that the entity that possesses these qualities must be of a higher plane of existence than his own and he submits himself in worship to this “higher existence.”
The Jew would tell the idolater that he is making a fundamental error. Does your thunder, mountain, river or sun possess the quality of being the Author of all existence? Did the mountain give itself its majesty? Or was the mountain granted its majesty by the same One who granted me the ability to discern and to appreciate majesty? You are confusing the subject with its Master.
When the idolater would attempt to persuade the Jew to join him in his worship of the sun, the Jew would respond: my heart is already tied up in a relationship with the One who created me and who created the sun. All of the qualities that you believe that the sun possesses cannot justify my devotion to it simply because the devotion of my heart does not belong to sun, but to the One who created and sustains my heart.
Christianity; Devotion and Rationalizations
The Jewish attitude toward those who promote devotion to Jesus is no different than their attitude toward those who promote devotion to the sun. All of the qualities that one may believe that Jesus possesses cannot justify devotion to Him. Jesus’ supposed unparalleled popularity, his alleged ability to transform lives, his reputed courage in taking on a corrupt religious establishment and his professed humility would all be gifts granted to Him by the One Creator of all (had he possessed any of these).
In the context of devotion the only quality that is relevant to the discussion is the quality of Creator. The Jews were worshipping the Creator long before Jesus was born. Jesus brought nothing new to the table in terms of Creator and there is nothing new that anyone can bring to the table in terms of Creator. God is the One Creator; He always was and He always will be and this simple truth can never change or be adjusted.
Where the Christian differs from some of the more crude pagans is not in the realm of devotion. The devotion that the followers of Jesus promote is no different than the devotion promoted by the worshipers of the sun. In both cases we are being encouraged to direct devotion toward a finite existence. Christianity separates itself from some of the pagan cults by the various rationalizations that it presents to justify devotion to Jesus, but not in the devotion itself.
Let us examine some of these rationalizations.
#1 – Christians contend that the devotion that they are encouraging is not the idolatry prohibited by Scripture because they do not worship Jesus’ physical body.
This argument is rooted in the false assumption that idolatry is limited to the worship of a physical body. I think that most Christians would recognize that worship of the spirit that animates an animal, the spirit of a person or an angel would all be considered idolatry. In fact most of those cultures that practiced obeisance to statues were not directing their devotion to the physical statue, but rather their hearts were directed toward the spirit that the statue represented.
God is the creator of both spirit and flesh (Zechariah 12:1). Both of these belong to God and to Him alone. Every body and every spirit and soul are completely subject to the One Creator of all. To give to any subject the devotion that belongs to the Master is idolatry.
# 2 – Christians contend that the spirit that inhabited the body of Jesus was “one and the same” as the God of Israel therefore worship of Jesus is not worship of “another god” prohibited by the Jewish Bible.
This argument is rooted in a misunderstanding of the term; “one and the same,” or in a misunderstanding of our relationship with God, or both.
We can say that two seemingly different entities are one and the same when they share the same elemental properties despite their seeming differences. Water and ice can be said to be one and the same because they both share the elemental ingredients of H2O. A person who appears in two different costumes can be said to be one and the same because the disguises do not define the essence of the person.
Certain things can never be “one and the same” simply because they describe two opposite elements of existence. Light and dark, hot and cold, holy and profane, good and bad can never be “one and the same” unless we are speaking of these qualities in relative terms (such as a room which can be considered both light and dark if it only partially illuminated). But when we speak of these concepts in absolute terms then they can never be “one and the same.”
When we focus on worship the critical terms are; Absolute Giver and the beneficiaries of His benevolence. These are two opposites that can never be “one and the same.”
When people saw Jesus as he walked the earth, or when thy find him in the pages of the Christian Scriptures they might identify him as a righteous person, a humble person, a wise person or a holy person. But they do not see Absolute Master, Creator of all, Source of all existence and the Ultimate Giver. All righteousness, holiness, wisdom, humility and self-sacrifice that abide in a human soul can only be gifts from the Source of all goodness. These qualities can only turn the person into a greater beneficiary of God’s benevolence; they can never turn him into Master.
The only way one can say that any given person is “one and the same” as God is if they do not understand the term; “one and the same,” of if they do not recognize that our worship of God is predicated on the fact that He is the Ultimate Giver and that anything that a finite existence possesses can only be a gift from God.
# 3 – Christians contend that Jesus is a “doorway” through which people come to God. As such, they see Jesus as inseparable from God.
This argument is rooted in the false assumption that God is inaccessible; it is rooted in a misunderstanding of the word “doorway” and in a misunderstanding of the word “inseparable.”
God is accessible to all who seek Him in sincerity (Psalm 145:18). All of the holy men and women who walked the earth before Jesus experienced a closeness to God without ever hearing of Jesus. Many saintly people experienced intimacy with God since the time of Jesus without having devoted themselves to Jesus. The claim that no one comes to the Father but through Jesus is demonstrably false.
To say that Jesus is inseparable from God is also patently false. Many people worship God and do not worship Jesus. Others, such as Unitarians, worship Jesus as a human being and not as a god. The fact that many Christians chose to fuse these two entities together in their minds does not make them inseparable. In fact, many Christians who have studied the matter recognized that their worship was misplaced and abandoned Jesus and remained with God. God and Jesus are certainly separable from one another.
The point of a doorway is that it provides a space through which one can access the area beyond. A doorway facilitates your approach to your ultimate goal. A doorway that demands to be carried with you wherever you go is no doorway; it is a distraction from the destination. No Christian denomination ever advocated that after an initial encounter with Jesus, one can forget about Jesus and get on with developing a relationship with God. Devotion to Jesus is a doorway to Jesus, not to God.
#4 – Christians contend that Jesus was a manifestation of God. They compare Jesus to the fire of the burning bush that Moses saw at Horeb (Exodus 3:4), to the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 13:21), and to the Angel of the Lord that appears throughout the Jewish Scriptures (Exodus 23:20; Judges 6:12; Isaiah 63:9).
This argument is rooted in a misunderstanding of the relationship that the Jewish people share with God. The relationship between God and Israel includes many activities that are ancillary to the essence of the relationship. The essence of the relationship is God’s love for Israel and Israel’s love and reverence for God. As expressions of His love, God guides His people, He speaks to their prophets, and he protects them from their enemies. As expressions of Israel’s heart for God we offer sacrifices, we build a Temple and we follow His Law. All of these activities are only part of the relationship inasmuch as they express the heart of one party toward the other. If you remove the heart from these activities, they remain empty husks.
All of the manifestations of God that are found in Scripture relate to the ancillary aspects of the relationship. God showed His people that He chose Solomon’s Temple with a cloud of glory (1Kings 8:10), God accepted Elijah’s sacrifice with a fire from Heaven (1Kings 18:38), and God spoke to Abraham through the agency of an angel (Genesis 22:15). These have no impact on the essence of our relationship with God; namely, the love of our heart.
When God came to teach His people about the essence of our relationship with Him, they saw no image. God emphasized this point when He reminded His people of this covenantal encounter (Deuteronomy 4:15). The Sinai encounter was the definitive teaching about the heart of our relationship with God. And in this critical context the Scriptures emphasize that there was no manifestation at all.
Christianity’s claim for Jesus is a claim about the essence of the relationship. Christianity demands a love and a reverence for the person portrayed in the pages of the Christian Scriptures. This is not telling us at which location to bring our sacrifices, it is not guiding our travel and it is not merely bringing us a message. This is telling us where to direct our hearts. It is a teaching that attempts to place a finite existence into the essence of our relationship with God. This is idolatry.
The Historical Jesus and the Historicity of the Christian Scriptures
Much ink has been expended in the effort to uncover the historical Jesus. The questions abound. Was Jesus a radical revolutionary against the oppressive Roman Empire or was he a pacifist who decried the use of force? Was Jesus an imposter or was he a messenger from on high? Was he a prophet or was he a deluded dreamer? What theology did Jesus preach? Did he preach a Trinity or did he advocate a pure monotheistic faith?
All of these arguments center on the work of literature that is known as the Christian Scripture. It is in this set of books that the character and the history of Jesus are depicted. This series of books brings a new set of questions to the discussion. Who authored these books? When were these books authored? Was there another document that preceded these books from which these writers drew their narratives? Are these books reliable?
It is not for me to attempt to resolve these questions. I do not believe that these questions can be resolved decisively and conclusively. The events in questions took place in the distant past. Any theory, no matter how convincing, can only remain speculation.
What we can do and what is incumbent upon us to do is to put this discussion into perspective. In the complexities of the conversations certain common denominators tend to get lost. By recognizing the common thread that is present in all of the theories about Jesus and the books that describe his life we can bring some balance to this debate.
Any discussion about a human being must recognize its limitations. No man can truly know what transpires in the heart of his fellow man. Only God can see the heart (1Samuel 16:7). What we can judge are the words and the activities that our subject brought out into the open. Since this discussion is about a man who lived and died a long time ago, we cannot evaluate all of his words and actions. We can only measure those words and those actions that were preserved in the writings and in the hearts of those who were impacted by his life. In other words this can never be a discussion about Jesus. We can only discuss the impression that Jesus left behind him in this world.
These impressions themselves are ever-changing. New interpretations of Jesus’ words and teachings are being developed on a regular basis. Is it at all possible to determine with any accuracy the content of the original impression that Jesus left behind him? I think that not. But I do believe that we can be confident about one element of the original impression that Jesus made on those who lived with him. There is one constant quality that every strand of evidence affirms concerning the impression that Jesus left behind him. There is no dispute that Jesus raised up a following that saw love for Jesus as a central feature, if not the central feature of their universe.
Since that time, all who considered themselves followers of Jesus accepted this constant. All who follow Jesus accept that a person’s love for Jesus or lack thereof is the most important defining quality of man. These followers of Jesus defined themselves and they evaluated their connection to other people primarily on the basis of their feelings toward Jesus.
Yes, there was and there still is conflict about which Jesus to love. Is it a Trinitarian Jesus or is it a Unitarian Jesus? Is it a pacifist Jesus or is it a Jesus who wants to see his enemies destroyed? But all who like to see themselves as extensions of Jesus’ impact on human society agree that love for Jesus is a central feature of their worldview.
The books of the Christian Scriptures were products of this community. It is difficult to determine with any certainty the precise theological parameters of the writers of the gospels, but there is no question that they saw love for Jesus as a principal element of existence. The most important line in the universe of the gospel writers was the divide between those who love Jesus and those who don’t.
It is naïve to read the books of Christian Scripture without recognizing this truth. These writers loved Jesus in an extreme way. It is clear that these people would not have demanded the same standard of evidence that an objective outsider would demand before accepting something positive or before discounting something negative about their hero.
To say that the books of Christian Scriptures are historical documents is misleading. Yes, these books were written a long time ago. But do these books present objective historical facts? It would be foolish to believe so. It is clear that these books are presenting the worldview of people whose hearts were completely committed to Jesus. Not only were these books written by people with a deep love for Jesus in their hearts, but these books were written with the express purpose of promoting and justifying that love. Few factors can distort a person’s view of reality to the same extent as the factor of love for an individual.
The ramifications of this truth are manifold. When the Christian Scriptures report that Jesus performed many glorious miracles, we need to read those words with the understanding that those who wrote them had a deep motivation to believe those reports. When these writers present fanciful Scriptural interpretations that exalt Jesus we need to recognize that there was a driving force in their hearts that wanted to see these interpretations in the words of the prophets. When the gospel writers vilify those who did not share their love for Jesus, we need to realize that the centerpiece of their worldview would have them reinterpret reality in this way.
We can know very little about Jesus today, so many centuries after his death. But we can be sure that he left behind him a legacy that elevated people’s love for him to an extreme degree.
The question that needs to be asked when reading the Christian Scriptures is if this love is justified. What legacy of justification did they leave for this central element of their message? Perhaps more important is the question of what kind of legacy of respect did they pass on concerning the ethical and moral responsibility for people to question that love.
Did the community that Jesus raised respect the process of honest questioning before loving? Or did they redefine honesty according to the love that was so central to their universe?
These are the questions that we should be asking about the historical Jesus. For this is the imprint that he left on the minds and hearts of men.
The Historical Paul and the History of Opposition to his Message
In the same way that scholars and fanatics wrangle over the historical Jesus so it is with Paul. It is not so much the person of Paul that generates the most intense debates but rather it is the content and the context of his message.
Fundamentalist Christians insist that Paul was only passing on the authentic teachings of Jesus. The proponents of this position would argue that soon after Jesus’ death, the original teachings of Jesus were corrupted by the Judaic tendencies of the Jewish followers of Jesus. According to these Churchmen, it was Paul who saved Christianity and brought the community of disciples back to the original teachings of Jesus.
Many scholars insist that Paul’s message represents a radical departure from the teachings of Jesus. These students of history see Jesus as a person whose entire social context was Judaism while Paul’s teachings departed from the Jewish foundations established by Jesus. Paul’s disparaging attitude toward the Law of Moses and his exaltation of the death of Jesus are seen as deviations from the original teachings of Jesus.
It is not for me to pass judgment and render a decisive conclusion about events that took place so long ago. My aim with the following paragraphs is twofold. On the one hand I plan to bring some balance to the discussion by focusing on the common denominator that Paul shared with the original Jewish Christian community. On the other hand, I also hope to demonstrate the plausibility of the position that sees Paul as one who brought a new message and not one who was simply resurrecting Jesus’ forgotten teachings.
Let us take the position that Paul was presenting a teaching which deviated from the original message of Jesus (the position that I believe is most plausible). So what is the scenario? We have Jesus who proclaims himself as Messiah in a thoroughly Jewish context. This would make him a king who is to rule over a utopian world in which God’s Temple is the center of worship for all mankind. Then he dies. In this template, his disciples see his death as an obstacle, as a bump in the road, if not a complete refutation for their belief in the messianic claims for Jesus (Luke 24:21). The disciples overcome this obstacle with their hope for his imminent return. At this point they do not see the messianic era as something that has already commenced in any way shape or form. They do hope that it will begin soon with the return of their beloved leader.
Enter Paul. According to Paul, the death of Jesus is not an obstacle that stands in the way of his messianic claim. The precise opposite is true. His death is the greatest achievement of his messianic career. It is precisely his death that provides salvation for all mankind and this salvation can only be achieved through belief in and acceptance of Jesus.
If this is the scenario, then the stage is set for a major conflict. We would expect the Jewish followers of Jesus to resist the message of Paul and to discredit his claim as an authentic teacher who speaks in the name of Jesus. And this is what they seem to have done. As we shall see, this opposition to Paul still lingers between the lines of the very book that attempted to erase this opposing stream of thought from the pages of history. But before we study the opposition to Paul it is important to recognize the commonality that the Jewish following of Jesus shared with Paul.
You see, Paul did not build his edifice on thin air. The Jewish following of Jesus gave him the foundation upon which to establish his theology. And that foundation was their extreme affinity to Jesus. The entire thrust of Paul’s theology, as new as it might have been, is to justify and give meaning to a phenomenon that already existed. Had the Jewish following of Jesus not introduced the affinity toward Jesus into the stream of human thought then Paul’s message would have found no context.
With this commonality in mind we can more readily appreciate the indications of conflict that appear in the Christian Scriptures.
The most explicit indicator of conflict is spelled out by Paul himself. Throughout his writings Paul argues for his own authenticity as a legitimate apostle of Jesus (Galatians 2:9; 1Corintians 9:2; 2Corinthians 11:5). He rebukes his audience for giving a listening ear to those from within the community of lovers of Jesus that opposed his message (Galatians 1:7). Paul criticizes Peter, Jesus’ chief disciple, for vacillating between the two opposing factions that existed within Christendom (Galatians 2:11-13). And Paul explicitly speaks of followers of Jesus who preached a message that was different from his own (2Corinthians 11:13).
There are those who would argue that this conflict was limited to one particular question and is not an indicator of a deep theological divide between two opposing camps. According to these Churchmen the only area of disagreement between Paul and his opponents was the question of the Torah observance of gentiles. Paul proposed that gentile followers of Jesus do not need to observe the Torah in order to join the following while his opponents would not accept gentiles into the fold unless they observed the Torah. These Churchmen would have us believe that in every other area of theology, Paul and his Jewish opponents were on the same page.
This argument misses out on a key aspect of the conflict in the early Church. Those early followers of Jesus all accepted and believed that certain people were authorized to disseminate the teachings of Jesus. The fact that Paul sees the need to tell his audience of his legitimacy as a disseminator of Jesus’ message is evidence that this legitimacy was called into question. Paul clearly saw his opponents as illegitimate teachers who preached a different gospel (2Corinthians 11:4).
We cannot identify with precision the parameters of the conflict between Paul and his opponents. But we can be sure that the two parties to this conflict felt that the difference between them was deep and serious. Each of the parties in this conflict considered their opponents to be illegitimate teachers with no authority to teach in Jesus’ name.
Let us step back and put this into perspective. Both Paul and his opponents agreed that love of Jesus is a central feature of life. What they could not agree upon was the interpretation of the theology surrounding Jesus. This theology is supposed to offer the justification for the extreme exaltation of Jesus and this is where the followers of Jesus could not come to an agreement.
What clearly emerges from the writings of Paul is that in his day there existed a community of human beings who exalted Jesus. This community saw their love for Jesus as something central and definitive to the human experience. We can also see that a deep conflict existed within this community as it relates to the justification for this love. Each faction firmly believed that the other faction’s theology of exaltation of Jesus was illegitimate.
We can be sure that Jesus left behind him a legacy of exaltation of his person but we can also be sure that if he provided a justification for that exaltation it was not etched in stone. Within one generation of Jesus’ death his own community could not agree on a theology that would justify their exaltation of Jesus.
The followers of Jesus contend that Jesus was a prophet like no other. Even if this contention would be rooted in truth it would still not serve to justify devotion to him as a deity. A prophet is one who brings a message from God and is not divine himself. But let us examine this Christian contention for what it is worth.
Prophets are people who bring a message from a realm that we cannot see. Since we cannot examine the source of the prophet’s message it is difficult to determine if the prophet is legitimate or not. How can we know if this man is bringing us an authentic message?
Perhaps we should judge the prophet by the content of his message. Does this message sound like a Godly message? Perhaps we should evaluate the prophet by the level of authority with which he speaks. Maybe we should be looking at the aura of mystery that pervades his or her words. Perhaps we should look at the man’s courage and self-sacrifice in order to know if his message is legitimate.
The followers of Jesus, much like the followers of Mohammed, would have us evaluate his mission on the basis of these criteria. They point to the moral and ethical beauty of the Sermon on the Mount as an indication that Jesus’ message was true. The missionaries highlight the authoritative manner of Jesus’ talk. Christians point to Jesus’ courage in taking on a corrupt religious establishment and exposing their flaws as evidence that he was a prophet like no other. And the followers of Jesus accentuate his self-sacrifice. His mission ended in a painful crucifixion. Why would he bring this on himself if he was a fraud?
Are these the most accurate methods through which to evaluate the validity of a claimant to prophecy? Is this the way that God would have us authenticate His messengers? The answer to both of these questions is a resounding “no.”
Each of these standards can be misleading. The fact that someone espouses teachings of deep moral and ethical meaning does not make him a prophet. Each of us has a conscience that is sensitive to moral and ethical truth and by examining our own hearts we can arrive at deep and meaningful insights. Every culture has produced people that have an unusual ability to articulate moral truths. Many of these people never claimed to be prophets yet their words ring true throughout the generations. The ability to give expression to moral truth is not limited to prophets.
An authoritative manner of speaking is also no indicator of the authenticity of a claim to prophecy. Every prophet that Christians recognize as frauds also spoke with authority. Many people who present no claim to prophecy also have the ability to speak with authority. Leaders and lunatics, visionaries and the self-deluded, prophets and frauds can all speak with authority and history is replete with examples of decisive and authoritative speech for members of each of these categories.
Challenging the reigning establishment is also no indicator of authentic prophecy. A false prophet may find himself at odds with the accepted norms. In a society where truth is valued we would expect a fraud to run afoul of the religious leadership. Throughout history many people have courageously attacked the powers that be. Some of these people were righteous and others were evil. Railing against an accepted religious or political establishment is not an indicator of legitimate prophecy.
The willingness to suffer and die for a cause is also no gauge by which to measure the veracity of a prophetic claim. Many people suffer and die for foolish or evil causes. The fact that they are willing to suffer may perhaps indicate that these people believe the cause to be true, but it does not tell us that the cause is indeed true. The false prophets that were challenged by Elijah also demonstrated a willingness to suffer and die for their cause (1Kings 18:28). This doesn’t make them authentic prophets. The human capacity for self-delusion is almost unlimited. We cannot rely on a person’s evaluation of his own self in order to determine if he is an authentic prophet or a fraud.
How then can we determine if a given claim to prophecy is legitimate or not? Since both Jews and Christians accept the authenticity of the Jewish Scriptures we will turn to that document to find the answer to our question.
The Law of Moses addresses the evaluation of prophecy in Deuteronomy 13:2-6 (1-5) and 18:15-22. In these passages we are given to understand that if a prophet encourages worship of a god we never knew, if he speaks in the name of another god, or if his prediction fails to materialize then we can be sure that his message is illegitimate.
Before we attempt to evaluate the claim for Jesus let us pause to take stock. Deuteronomy 13:2,3 (1,2) teaches that a false prophet may perhaps perform a sign or a wonder. This means that a miracle, or even a series of miracles, cannot justify a claim to prophecy. If the message that the claimant to prophecy is bringing to us would have us direct our hearts to someone that we never knew as a deity then all of his miracles are to be disregarded.
What are the practical ramifications of this teaching? How would this particular instruction play itself out in the heart and in the mind of a Jew? What does this teach us about the evaluation of prophetic claims?
One thing is immediately obvious. The Law of Moses gives us guidelines in this realm of determining the authenticity of a prophet. Loyalty to God’s word demands that he same methods that we use to apply the Law of Moses to the observance of the Sabbath or the judgment of civil law should be used to gauge the veracity of a prophet.
The Law of Moses directs our attention to our perception of God. After all, it was God Himself who taught us this perception, and this is the path that He set us on when He took us out of the Land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 13:6 (5). Our perception of the One that we are to worship is the standard that we are to use to measure the prophetic message. A message that violates the understanding we were granted concerning the direction of our worship is a false message according to the Law of Moses. We are to disregard the claimant’s miracles, we are to ignore the seemingly Godly content of this prophet’s message, we must not be swayed by the authority with which this person speaks and the courage and self-sacrifice of this visionary should mean nothing to us. This is what Moses taught us about the evaluation of prophetic claims.
According to Trinitarian Christianity Jesus taught a redirection of worship. He taught that our hearts need to be directed toward himself; a direction that our hearts had hitherto not considered. According to the Law of Moses, which Christianity acknowledges as authentic, we are to reject Jesus as a false prophet.
The central claim of Christianity is that Jesus is the Messiah predicted by the prophets of the Jewish Scriptures. Even if this claim were true, which it is clearly not, it would still not justify worship of Jesus as a deity. The Messiah is a subject of God just like the rest of us and as such is not deserving of our worship. But let us examine the basis for the Christian claim for the Messiah-ship of Jesus.
The prophets of Judaism predicted the advent of a king from the line of David. The prophets presented a vision in which humanity reaches ultimate happiness under the reign of this king. The fact that humanity has not reached this utopian era is more than enough to tell the Jewish people that the Messiah is yet to arrive. But the followers of Jesus still insist that Jesus is this king that the prophets spoke of. Christians contend that Jesus will yet fulfill the utopian vision of the prophets but more importantly they argue that he has already fulfilled a set of prophecies that describe the Messiah’s role before the advent of the utopian age.
The followers of Jesus take this argument one audacious step further. Not only do they claim that the prophets spoke of two separate roles of the Messiah, but they contend that the first mission of the Messiah is the primary achievement of this king. According to the Churchmen the only ones that will enjoy the blessing of the utopian era are those who were “saved” by the Messiah in his first advent.
This teaching of two advents of the Messiah is not explicitly stated in the words of the prophets. According to the Christian Scriptures, Jesus’ own followers did not know of this teaching until after Jesus’ failed to come through as the glorious king that they had expected him to be. After Jesus had died his followers despaired of him being the Messiah (Luke 24:21). This demonstrates that in the few years that Jesus spent teaching his disciples he did not teach them about the two advents of the Messiah. The followers of Jesus only discovered this teaching between the lines of the Jewish Scripture when they desperately needed this teaching.
Today the followers of Jesus have developed an edifice of arguments based on the Biblical texts that would support their belief in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. These Churchmen insist that their interpretation of these Biblical texts is accurate beyond question. When people who are not devoted to Jesus don’t read the texts as do the Christians the Churchmen theorize that these people are “blinded.” The fact that even the original followers of Jesus did not see Jesus’ death predicted in the pages of the Bible does not disturb these Christians. The theory has it that the eyes of Jesus’ disciples were only “opened” after his alleged resurrection.
There are two primary tactics which the missionaries utilize in order to insert Jesus into the Biblical text. They will take a verse that is not related to the Messiah and present it as a “Messianic prophecy” that Jesus “fulfilled.” Or they will take a detail out of a prophecy that is Messianic, wrench it out of its context and apply it to the career of Jesus.
A famous example of the first method of exploitation of the Biblical text is the “virgin birth” prophecy from Isaiah 7:14. The original Hebrew says nothing about a virgin birth but more importantly, when read in context, this passage has nothing to do with the Messiah. Isaiah was presenting a prediction to the Judean King Ahaz that was to be fulfilled in the immediate future. King Ahaz died many centuries before Jesus was born. The passage in Isaiah that the gospel of Matthew quotes to “prove” the Messianic claims of Jesus has nothing to do with the Messiah.
Zechariah 9:9 which has Israel’s king entering Jerusalem on a donkey serves to illustrate the second method of missionary misuse of Scripture. This passage can be read as a reference to the Messiah, but the ride on the donkey is only one detail of a larger picture. The prophet speaks of the king ruling from sea to sea, the end of war and an advent of peace. There is no textual justification for the Christian interpretation which has a 2000 year pause in the middle of the prophetic passage.
There is however one Scriptural passage which would perhaps lend weight to the “two advent” theory proposed by Jesus’ followers. This passage is known as the “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah 52:13 thru Isaiah 53:12. This passage describes the servant of God exalted and honored in the Messianic era. But this servant is not an unknown figure. Those who witness his exaltation are shocked because they have known this servant as one acquainted with suffering. They had assumed that his suffering was a sign of God’s displeasure with him and now that they see him honored by God they are stunned into a shocked silence.
If this passage is indeed referring to the Messiah then we have a case for two advents. The servant described by Isaiah first undergoes a period of suffering and shame and this same servant then experiences honor and glory. But this passage still does nothing to support the claims of Christianity.
If this passage is indeed referring to the Messiah then it is telling us in no uncertain terms that Jesus is not the Messiah. The entire thrust of this prophetic passage is that the servant of God is despised until his sudden exaltation. This servant is someone who is on the minds of those who despised him (and this includes the kings of nations – Isaiah 52:15). These people will possess a comprehensive evaluation of the servant that is predicated on the idea that he is somehow a lesser human being. They will point to the suffering of the servant as justification for their negative perspective of God’s loyal servant.
The prophet tells us that this negative evaluation of the servant will be completely overturned with his sudden exaltation by God. The entire passage is the shocked expression of these onlookers whose perspective of the servant had suddenly proven wrong.
All students of Scripture will agree that in the present age (April 2014) no one is openly and obviously exalted by God. The exaltation of which Isaiah speaks is yet to occur. But at this point in time there is no human being in the history of mankind who is more popular than Jesus of Nazareth. The Christians, the Moslems and the Hindus all see Jesus as a positive figure. Even the Jews, who see Jesus in a negative light, do not consider him to be subhuman. The Jewish people consider Jesus to be an ordinary human being and not divine and as such his claims to divinity are rejected. The prophetic description of someone who had been considered subhuman suddenly being exalted cannot be applied to Jesus.
A contextual reading of the passage will reveal that the prophet is referring to the righteous of Israel. Merely three verse before this passage (Isaiah 52:10) the prophet describes the exaltation of Israel with the very same metaphor that is used in the passage in question (Isaiah 53:1). The prophetic narrator uses the metaphor of the revelation of the arm of the Lord to describe God’s intervention on behalf of the Jewish people (see also Psalm 98:1-3). The prophets consistently describe the Messianic era being ushered in with a sudden revelation of God’s glory that brings vindication to the righteous of Israel and shame to those who despised Israel (Isaiah 41:11, 49:23,25,26, 60:10-14, 61:6,9, Jeremiah 30:16, Ezekiel 37:28, 39:25-29, Joel 4:2,16,17, Micah 7:10,16,17, Zephaniah 3:20).
So what is the Messiah’s role in God’s plan? What is the King Messiah’s function in the Messianic era?
The most illuminating word that the prophets gave us concerning the function of Messiah is that they called the Messiah by the name of his ancestor David (Jeremiah 30:9, Ezekiel 34:23,24; 37:24; Hosea 3:5). David is the chief Biblical prototype of the Messiah.
There is no character in all of Scripture that we know as well as David. David’s heart is open for all to read. The Book of Psalms are filled with David’s praise for God, his love for God, his trust in God, his yearning for God and his love for God’s holy Law. David’s complete dependence upon God is accentuated, emphasized and displayed most openly again and again. David’s book and David’s life direct all of our attention, all of our hearts, all of our emotions, and all of our devotion and worship towards the Creator of the world. David diverts none of the attention towards himself. On the contrary, David speaks most openly of his own sins, his faults and his utter helplessness before God.
The primary function of the Messiah is to be like David. The Messiah will direct all of mankind’s attention toward the Creator of the universe and only towards the Creator of the universe. When the Messiah’s mission is complete, then; “The Lord alone will be exalted on that day” (Isaiah 2:17).
The central character of the Christian Scriptures is a man who seeks attention for himself. His goal is to divert the heart, the emotions, the devotion and worship of mankind toward his own personality. He attempts to obfuscate his own helplessness before God with the veil of his claim to divinity.
If we were to say that this man cannot be the Messiah, we would have said too little. The founder of Christianity represents the polar opposite of the Messiah of the Jewish Scriptures.
The Wisdom that is Present Wherever You Look
The word “Jew” is a derivative of the Hebrew “Yehuda.” The name “Yehuda” means thanks and acknowledgment (Genesis 29:25), and the calling of the Jew is to praise and acknowledge the goodness of God (Isaiah 43:21). The activity of thanking God may seem to be something that is not very relevant in our fast-paced modern lives. But in fact, thanking God is something that has the power to turn over every moment of your life. And the Scriptural prophets promised that the calling of the Jewish people will one day light up the world.
Most of mankind’s activities are devoted to acquiring happiness or to avoid the threat of pain. We work to acquire food to eat to escape the threat of starvation and to enjoy the pleasure of eating. We amass wealth in order to avoid the threat of poverty and want. We exert ourselves to protect ourselves and our families from all types of disasters. We seek love, security and stability and we attempt to avoid loneliness, vulnerability and confusion. We want guarantees for our future in this world and the next and we want to see those guarantees in writing and in our own possession.
The underlying assumption that stands behind all of these activities is that we have the ability to escape our state of dependency and establish ourselves to be independent. We think that when the money is in our bank account then we are no longer dependent on outside factors for our material well-being. When we have that medicine in our pharmacies then we will have our health in our hand. When our houses are built and our borders are guarded then we will possess our security. When we find that relationship then we will possess the solution to loneliness and emotional want. When we find the right spiritual connection then we will possess the assurances that will assuage our fears.
In other words, most of mankind’s activities are devoted to combatting the fact that we are dependent beings. We assume that by acquiring various possessions we can establish our own independence.
But this battle of life is a battle of futility. We will never become independent. We will never possess our happiness, our health, our security or a guarantee for our future. How can we possess anything if our very existence does not belong to us? All of our happiness, our security and our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being rest with God. Every minute that we experience existence is a gift from the One who created us all and it is a gift that we did nothing to deserve.
The calling of the Jewish people is to declare to the world that there is no point in fighting God. There is no point in trying to acquire what you can never possess. Instead of fearing the state of dependence, rejoice in the fact that your existence is in the hands of God. Recognize that every breath that you ever took and ever thought that passed through your mind stood on nothing but on God’s love for you. You will come to enjoy the love of God not only in your own life, but you will also delight in God’s goodness that is evident in the breath of every living being.
The mission of the Jewish people is to testify to the simple truth that every iota of existence belongs to God and to no one else. Everything always belonged to Him and everything will forevermore belong to Him.
The greatest opposition that the Jewish people encounter in their mission to bring this truth to their own hearts and to the world is the philosophy of idolatry in its various manifestations. Not only does the philosophy of idolatry oppose the foundational truth of the absolute sovereignty of God but it does so in the name of spirituality and religious virtue.
The philosophy of idolatry opposes the foundational truth of the absolute sovereignty of God on two fronts. On the one hand the call to worship an idol is an exaltation of a quality (or set of qualities) that is contained in the context of a finite existence. Be it the majesty of a mountain, the beauty of river, the serenity and solidity of a statue, the power of thunder or the miraculous powers of Jesus, these are all qualities that are perceived in the context of a finite existence. By exalting these qualities and claiming that these qualities justify devotion toward the entity in which they are found the idolater is denying that these properties can never truly belong to a finite existence. The idolater denies that any quality that is found in the context of a finite existence can only be an undeserved gift from the One Creator of all. Worship of an idol is a denial of the idol’s debt toward the Creator for its very existence.
There is another way that the philosophy of idolatry opposes Israel’s message of God’s sovereignty. The idolater is not only denying the idol’s debt to God but the idolater also denies the worshiper’s debt to God. If we truly recognize that every iota of our existence belongs to God then we would also recognize that the only question that is pertinent in the context of worship is: to whom does my heart belong? The idolater encourages the worshiper to turn away from that question and instead ask: where can I direct my heart and profit the most?
The primary message of Israel’s prophets is that God is the absolute Master of all. Instead of allowing ourselves to be overawed by the qualities that we perceive in various finite entities, we should recognize that these entities are beneficiaries of God’s benevolence. Instead of seeing our hearts as free to bend to the object of our choosing we should recognize that our hearts belong to the One whose love is sustaining our heart this very moment.
The prophets looked forward to the day when idolatry is eradicated from the minds of men. They looked forward to the day when all mankind recognizes and acknowledges that they are indebted to God for their very existence. Mankind will then beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and they shall learn war no more. They will recognize that wealth and security can never be acquired. They will understand that happiness is feeling the love of God in every breath of life.
The calling of the Jewish people is to remain true to this message. If the word “kosher” (which simply means correct and proper) is going to mean that which is correct and proper in light of Israel’s calling before God then recognizing our debt to our Creator is kosher. A philosophy that exalts an individual without acknowledging that individual’s debt towards God is decidedly not kosher.
The beginning of wisdom is a reverence toward God (Psalm 111:10). This wisdom is not far off. The benevolence of God is evident in every blade of grass, every ray of light and every breath of air. What prevents us from seeing God’s sovereignty is our futile desire to be independent, to establish our own sovereignty. The songs of David draw us away from this illusion of self-sufficiency. David’s music gave expression to the joy that Israel experienced in accepting the fact of God’s mastery over every facet of existence. And Israel’s prophets gave the world hope for a future in which all of mankind experiences that same joy.
The prophets of Israel teach us that we live in a world of illusion. Finite entities appear to possess power. The forces of nature, military might, wealth and popularity all project an aura of authority and strength. The prophets looked forward to a day when all of humanity will realize that there is no power aside from God (Deuteronomy 32:39).
The prophets described how the revelation of God’s absolute sovereignty over every facet of existence will shock those who were caught up in the illusions of power that pervades the world (Isaiah 2:17; Micah 7:15,16; Psalm 97:7).
The prophets also described how those who held fast to the truth of God’s sovereignty throughout the period of darkness will experience joy and vindication at the time of this revelation (Isaiah 25:9; 40:9; 45:25; 52:7; 60:1; Psalm 97:8).
Let us try to imagine the portrait painted by the prophets of the Jewish Scripture. Imagine a time when every creature recognizes that its very existence is but a gift of the One Creator of all. Try to see your every breath and the breath of every creature as expressions of God’s love. Imagine all of mankind rejoicing together in the fact that God is their king. Picture the day in which every man, woman and child stand in a deep and intimate relationship with the Creator of heaven and earth. This is the hope that the Jewish prophets gave us for the future (Isaiah 11:9).
Where does exaltation of a man find a place in the context of this hope? What is the popularity of any man in light of God’s all pervasive sovereignty? What is the righteousness of any man in light of God’s universal kindness? What is the courage of any man in light of God’s almighty strength?
The prophets of Israel didn’t just give us hope for the future. They also gave us a path for the present. They did not encourage us to worry about the sins we committed in the past. They assured us that God forgives us if we turn to Him and accept His sovereignty over our future (Isaiah 55:7; Ezekiel 33:16). They taught us that God can be found in justice and kindness (Micah 6:8). Not that these will “earn us merit” in God’s eyes for no one can give to God that which He does not already possess (Job 35:7; 1Chronicles 29:14). But rather justice and kindness are intimacy with God in and of themselves (Jeremiah 22:16).
Just as we experience vision through our sense of sight and sound through the sense of hearing so do we enjoy God’s sovereignty through our sense of justice and our love for kindness. By living justice and loving kindness we open our hearts to God.
Living justice helps us see our desire for possession for what it is. With our sensitivity to justice we understand that our own existence does not belong to us. Our sensitivity to justice helps us see that the Creator of the world has the right to put other people in the world aside from ourselves and that as the Master of all He has the right to give them happiness and security.
Loving kindness helps us enjoy the happiness of others. It enables us to appreciate God’s never-ending flow of blessing that encompasses ourselves and all of our fellow creations. Through the love of kindness we learn to see giving as good and greed as evil.
No human being can be perfect in justice or kindness. Justice and kindness are not goals to be attained, they are paths to walk. As we walk these paths with God holding our hand we see through the illusions of this world. We can see right through the wisdom of the wisest man, we are not impressed by the strength of any finite being, and any possession, be it material or spiritual, that is in the hand of a fellow inhabitant of this universe cannot draw our attention away from the rightful source. We recognize all of these as expressions of God’s benevolence and not as evidence for the deification of a finite existence.
If someone can lay claim to the titles: “greatest rabbi, wonderful prophet, courageous social reformer, miracle worker and selfless sacrificial lamb,” it will not shift our focus. The reality of God’s truth teaches us to see these as gifts from the One Creator of all, if they were indeed present in any individual. If someone uses these claims to direct devotion and worship to the entity that seems to possess these properties, then we identify this philosophy as idolatry, the greatest rebellion against God’s sovereignty.
The prophet Jeremiah put it like this: “Thus said the Lord: Let not the wise man glorify himself with his wisdom, and let not the strong man glorify himself with his strength, let not the rich man glorify himself with his wealth. For only with this may one glorify himself – contemplating and knowing Me, for I am the Lord who does justice and charity in the land, for I these is My desire – the word of the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:22,23).